The Arc of a Standup Career: George Carlin

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George Carlin recorded his first solo album in late 1966. On it, he does a bit about a folk protest song that airs on a fictional radio station called Wonderful WINO. Carlin sings the song — by a group he calls Danny and the Demonstrators, no less — in a goofy, drugged-out voice. The song goes like this:

“Don’t want no war/Don’t want no war/Don’t want no war. Don’t want no job, neither!”

The audience goes nuts. The bit kills.

The album that bit comes from, Take-Offs and Put-Ons, was recorded at the end of the first phase of Carlin’s stand-up career. You could call it the straight phase. He wore skinny ties, kept his hair short and did jokes about radio, television shows, commercials and, in that instance, Vietnam War protesters. Some of the material is left over from his partnership with Jack Burns. All of it is safe for the masses.

In 2004 on Inside the Actors Studio Carlin tells host James Lipton, “In 1967 in the so-called summer of love, I was 30. The people I was entertaining were 40 and 50. I was in these standard mainstream nightclubs, entertaining them, not agreeing with them at all. In fact, disliking them.”

He didn’t like what they stood for. He didn’t like the businesses they ran. He felt more kinship with 20-year-olds and the counterculture (read: drugs).

By the time Take-Offs and Put-Ons came out in 1967, Carlin was phasing out the safer stuff. He continued telling jokes about TV and radio, even revisiting characters he created in the 1960s throughout the 1970s, but his hair got longer and the jokes got, as Carlin has said, mocking his detractors, edgier. The first phase of his career, playing to straights, was over.

By the time Class Clown came out in September 1972, anyone expecting the same comedian who produced Take-Offs and Put-Ons or even FM & AM, which came out eight months before Class Clown, was in for a shock.

On Class Clown, the album that contains the first of many iterations of Carlin’s famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” a listener expecting a game show bit like “Queenie for a Day” must have had his mind blown when he heard, “You know the seven, don’t you, that you can’t say on television? Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits.”

Leaving aside all the controversy and legal brouhaha that followed “Seven Words,” the bit is a perfect example of the way Carlin’s mind worked and why he needed the freedom to piss people off. In those seven minutes, the listener can hear Carlin pore over the words and talk about why you can’t say them on television. (“Tits doesn’t even belong on the list, you know? It’s such a friendly sounding word. Sounds like a nickname, right? ‘Hey, Tits! C’mere, man!’”)

How can you talk about words if the bad words are off limits? For the rest of his career, Carlin played with words and their meanings. He also reported to the audience about curious things he’d observed. He called it “thinking up goofy shit.”

In the 1970s, though, he did sometimes seem like he was on a different planet. As sharp as Class Clown is, its follow-up, Operation: Foole, is rambling with only occasional flashes of brilliance. It’s as if Carlin’s old character, Al Sleet, the hippy dippy weatherman (and stoner), had taken over while George was sleeping it off backstage.

In his first HBO special, On Location: George Carlin at USC from 1977, Carlin seems out of breath and at times as if he’s going to drift off on a tangent or forget his place. The following year, he taped George Carlin: Again! for HBO and seems like a different performer. The jokes are in the same vein — small, everyday observations amid bigger ruminations on humanity — but he seems more focused on the material and the audience (he does an expanded version of “Seven Words” here).

Carlin suffered a heart attack in 1978 — the first of three, though on his website he calls it “Small-time shit” — and more or less disappeared for three years after the George Carlin: Again! aired. When he reappeared in 1981 with A Place for My Stuff, he settled into the third phase of his stand-up career that lasted until his death. The venues are bigger, the audiences more vocal in their appreciation, and the material tighter (mostly he talks faster).

His performances have the energy of Take-Offs and Put-Ons and his record with Burns, Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight (at times they sound downright manic). He covers subjects he covered in the 1970s but over the next 20-plus years, he gradually shifts the focus of his act from more observational humor to more societal and governmental criticism disguised with humor.

By the time his final HBO special, It’s Bad for Ya, aired in March 2008, he’s just ranting. Rants can be a drag in the wrong hands, but Carlin’s are funny, filled with his love of wordplay and plenty of goofy shit.

In the special, Carlin, wearing running shoes and dressed head to toe in black, is stoop-shouldered and noticeably frail, but he complains with exuberance and anger. In one bit, he talks about how child worship is terrible.

“Children are not our future and I can prove it with my usual flawless logic,” he says. “Children can’t be our future because by the time the future arrives they won’t be children anymore, so blow me!”

After the audience howls, he says, “As you may have noticed, I always like to present a carefully reasoned argument.”

The 1966 audience probably would have hated that joke. But the chances any of them were in the audience are slim. Carlin died four months after It’s Bad for Ya aired and those squares in the Take-Offs and Put-Ons crowd were likely long dead. And if they weren’t, they could blow him.

David Riedel doesn’t like tomatoes, is neutral on cilantro.